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Obama's hope on immigration reform is Utah, Mormon Church

Published February 11, 2013 8:17 am

State delegation resists citizenship path despite LDS backing of Utah Compact.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • The White House is pointing to the Utah Compact and the Mormon Church's support of its broad principles as proof that conservatives have moral and political reasons to back comprehensive immigration reform.

"It demonstrated that you can be in a state with, frankly, a lot of Republican leadership and take a pro-reform position without political harm," a senior administration official told The Salt Lake Tribune. "I think the Utah Compact made that case very clearly and established a framework that I think you are seeing echoed in what is happening in the Senate and in the president's proposal."

A bipartisan group of civic and religious leaders, including two former governors, drafted the Utah Compact in 2010 in reaction to a wave of state-based attempts to crack down on illegal immigration.

It comprises five principles, including that the issue must be dealt with in Congress and that the community should use a "humane approach" toward immigrants, legal or illegal, and strive to keep families together.

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement supporting The Compact, though none of its leaders signed the document. Many of those who did, including the leadership of the Salt Lake Chamber, now back a pathway to legal status and eventual citizenship, which is a key pillar of the White House's effort.

Utah delegation • Yet none of Utah's federal officials — all of whom are Mormon — supports such a move at this time, and none of them has embraced The Compact, a document that has been replicated in other states such as Colorado.

Utah's two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, say they will work on smaller immigration-reform bills but have shied away from anything offering a path to citizenship.

The state's newest member of Congress, Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, says he "understands the intent and the spirit of The Utah Compact" and appreciates how it helped defuse the high emotions that surrounded the debate over state immigration bills in 2010. But in his 2012 congressional campaign, he took a hard line against offering illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship and he's sticking to it, though he said he may be open to some sort of lesser legal status.

"If they wish to become citizens," he said, "they can return to their country and get in line like everyone else."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, argues that breaking down the issue into smaller pieces and starting with the ones with most bipartisan support would result in quick, meaningful action. He predicts that Congress won't pass one big measure — like the White House and Senate negotiators have proposed.

"If there is a comprehensive bill," he said, "there's something in there for everyone to hate and consequently it will probably die."

Chaffetz said he can work with the White House on border security or reforming the visa program, but he's not interested in starting the process by giving legal status to many of the 11 million illegal immigrants.

"If they are talking about amnesty, I'm just not going to go there," he said. "But there are lots of other parts of the bill that I'm sure I'll be in support of."

Chaffetz named efforts to boost the number of visas for graduates with science and technology degrees and his own bill that would allow immigrant entrepreneurs to petition for visas.

Big reform • The White House has no interest in a piecemeal approach, seeing it as a way for conservatives to pass border-security measures without ever addressing those here illegally.

"It is hard to imagine that Congress is going to take up this issue multiple times," said the senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are all interlocking pieces, and you can't say you fixed the system if you've just dealt with fragments of it."

The White House believes Republicans will eventually support a reform effort, partly because Latino voters, a surging segment of the population, have turned away from the GOP.

But beyond the electoral pressures, the official noted the effort has the support of some of the biggest Republican backers such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and conservative faith leaders.

"Between the business community, the law enforcement community and the faith community," the official said, "I would think that, frankly, any Republican of any stripe would have as much cover as they need to do what needs to be done here."

Natalie Gochnour, chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, is not surprised that the White House has touted The Utah Compact or that the Obama administration has asked former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, one of The Compact's authors, to lobby senators and the LDS Church to support comprehensive reform.

"I do think that the significant support that The Compact has received locally demonstrates that a conservative state can get behind serious immigration reform," she said, calling it "pro-family and very pro-economy."

But she knows their efforts haven't swayed any Utahn in Congress. "Maybe we need to do a better job making our viewpoint clear."

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham